The Tour of Cambridgeshire 2016 was the second running of this Euro style Gran Fondo. I rode last year’s event and qualified for the World Championship finale, which I rode in Aalborg, Denmark. The Gran Fondo is still a new concept here in the UK, but is simply an age categorised road race, with a sportive following behind. Throw in a time trial on the previous day and add fully closed roads and a bike expo. The Tour of Cambridgeshire is part of a series of fifteen Gran Fondos that take place all over the world, culminating in a final World Championship race, where you get a chance to win an actual UCI rainbow jersey, not bad eh?
With this year’s final taking place in Perth, Western Australia, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to afford the trip down-under, but I wanted to see what changes had been made for the Tour of Cambridgeshire 2016. The main changes that I was interested in were based around the start and the way the bunch would be segregated. Last year we had over two thousand riders in the race category and we all set off at the same time. Ever felt daunted by the size of your average race bunch? Well, this was even worse. I got around with no problems, but due to the numbers of riders, if you weren’t on the front row, there was no way you could get up the sharp end. The bunch was just too big.
Fast forward to this year and the organisers have copied the format used by other UCI events. Rather than turning up two hours before hand and still being way back, now we were split into five year age groups. Each age category had it’s own start pen and these didn’t open until one hour before the start, which is a very civilised twelve o’clock!
Four of us from the Handsling Racing team had opted to ride the Tour of Cambridgeshire 2016, but we wouldn’t be riding together, not because of any character faults, but because we would all be in different age groups. So after a very straightforward registration process and a saunter around the Expo – the chance to buy last minute items was being exercised by many – it was time to sit around, pin on numbers, eat and drink ready for the day and generally keep the nerves at bay. Difficult to do considering just how big the whole Tour of Cambridgeshire is!
Thousands of riders are milling about, riders of every kind. Club riders in protective clumps, all shaved legs and practised nonchalance; MAMILS stretching lycra beyond it’s safe limits; triathletes in cropped jerseys and ankle socks; sportive riders with back packs (what do they keep in there?); young, old, male, female, it’s a massive testament to just how much cycling has come on as a mainstream sport since I started back in the ’70s.
After last year’s experience I had opted to bring my turbo for a warm up – I’m at the age where it’s essential if I don’t want to be dropped in the first fifteen minutes – and not get to the start until fifteen minutes before the off. All was going well until I couldn’t find my way back to the car, I did say there were a lot of people right? Anyway after ten minutes of wandering back and forth, I finally got sorted. Warm up done and the grounds are noticeably empty, where is everyone? Well they are all ready to go, so I scoot over to a handy map to find out where the race group starts from and then ride past various marshals, who point me in the right direction.
I’m not sure how many were in the 50-54 age category, but it’s over one hundred and I’m at the back. This won’t do, what follows is a master class in how to sneak through a bunch of riders and arrive at the start on the second row! Time to race.
With only two races in my legs out of a planned six, I was feeling a little short on training on the way up to the 2016 Tour of Cambridgeshire. However I’d managed to fit in some sportives and had ridden them as hard as I could, to simulate road racing. Throw in some turbo sessions and my legs were feeling good, it’s just that for me, you can’t beat actually suffering in the bunch to bring on some form.
Once the countdown was done and we were out on the road I could feel that today was going to be a good one. The weather was fine and sunny, a little windier than last year, but otherwise good racing conditions. Sitting up near the front I watched as the first riders burst off the front to make the early, suicide break! Nothing came from these other than the usual accelerations that started the process of dislodging riders from the back.
We were passing riders who had suffered similar fates from earlier, younger groups ahead. For many of these this was probably their first race and being passed by large fast moving bunches must have been daunting for some. One young woman had an effective technique, which involved keeping as far left as possible while extending her right elbow. Anyone wanting to pass her had to go way round that sharp elbow, smart move although she must have been aching by the time all those groups went past her!
A benefit of riding is age categories is that the majority of riders in my bunch are experienced riders and the bike handling was much better than last year. There was the odd wobbly wheel, a brake hood in my rear end and I was squeezed a couple of times, but considering the size of the bunch and the speed we were going on some of the smaller lanes, it was noting to worry about.
So far the racing was fairly calm, the bunch seemed happy to ride along at an average of 40kph, dropping riders off the back, with the odd attack trying to go away, but never lasting long. I had my eye on a certain Malcolm Smith, he’s one of the Tour of Cambridgeshire’s organisers and as well as being a handy rider also knows the course. Once I had spotted him moving up the bunch I realised he was making sure he was near the front for any danger points. From then on I kept an eye on him and moved up when he did.
Noticed I said ‘moved up’, not got on the front? Why ruin the day by expending more energy than necessary? The wind was stronger than last year and sitting in the bunch I was getting a lovely ride! It all got a bit tense when we hit the airfield at RAF Alconbury, riding up and down the runways and around the industrial park involved a lot of cone watching. These were there to mark the course as it wandered around this huge expanse of open concrete. Sitting in the bunch they could be hard to spot if you didn’t keep your wits about you and I did hear a few crunches!
Coming up to the ninety kilometre mark and I was still feeling good, I even started to think that maybe rather than just qualifying, I should start thinking of getting a decent result! That’ll teach me, no sooner had I thought it than we ran through a series of sharp potholes, all of which I missed, not so two other riders, who crashed into them and punctured. I was just breathing a sigh of relief when everything went pear shaped. A softness from my rear wheel could only mean one thing, puncture…
Oh the litany of foul invective that spewed from my mouth! I can only apologise to those that were around me. Flinging my arm into the air to let riders know I had punctured and was pulling over and still swearing, I came to a stop at the side of the road. Most of the bad language was down to the fact that I was riding on tubeless tyres, so I shouldn’t have suffered from a pinch puncture and it couldn’t have been a normal puncture as the sealant should have dealt with that. Anyway, out with the spare tube and cue the fastest repair I’ve ever made. Meanwhile huge trains of riders are whirring passed me and my hopes of a decent placing with them.
Tyre fitted and covered in sealant, I start pumping like a maniac – guess who’d forgotten to bring a CO2 canister? – only to suddenly realise I’m standing in a patch of Cambridgeshire’s finest stinging nettles! Time for some more swearing, I re-stuff my pockets and jump back on the bike, with soft rear tyre, but I’m not stopping again.
What followed was fifteen minutes of flat out riding into a head wind that hadn’t really bothered me before, riding as I was in the bunch’s protective embrace. Now I’m trying to punch through a treacle wall, while a large group of dropped riders inches further and further away. For a while I hold them at fifty metres and for a short time I start to claw my way closer, only for them to increase their pace and leave me floundering.
Is there anything worse than that moment when you realise that’s it, race over? Well at least here on the Tour of Cambridgeshire I can still try to achieve a qualifying time; not the same as battling it out with the bunch, but still a goal. I spend the rest of the day catching and being dropped by various groups. Some riders will work, but many are happy to sit on a passing wheel, but not to share the load. It’s now that I get a chance to see how much support we have been getting from the roadside. People are out cheering us on; children try to run alongside the bunch shouting and yelling for joy; hands are stretched out to high five us as we roll by and always words of encouragement. It’s difficult to explain that lift that all this gives to a tired old man, who just wants a nice big bunch to sit in!
The final twenty kilometres approaches and I remember it really drags from the village of Yaxley. Where the roads have been uniformly straight and flat for the previous fifty kilometres, now they start to twist and roll. Tired legs start to twinge with cramp brought on by the need to ride out of the saddle and the change in gear and cadence. The group I’m in start to get twitchy, riders burst from the bunch, I try and follow as many as I can, all while punching and massaging my thigh, like some kind of sado-masochist!
Coming into the final kilometre I try and muster up enough energy for a sprint, but settle for a half hearted acceleration in the final fifty that gains me all of two places, still honour is satisfied and the Tour of Cambridgeshire 2016 is finished. Rolling through the finish lane, picking up a water bottle and finishers medal, I spy one of my Handsling Racing team mates and collapse gratefully beside him. We share tales of the day as we wait for the other two. While chatting, my phone chirps, my finish time has been texted to me, so no wandering around or searching the internet for my time, nice! I’m fifteen minutes slower than last year, which is not good. However my mood is lifted by the arrival of another text. This one is titled ‘Qualifier’! So I managed to get my qualification, despite the puncture, job done.
So that was the Tour of Cambridgeshire 2016, if you’ve never ridden a Gran Fondo before, give it a try. Ok entry is expensive, but consider what you are paying for. Closing down hundreds of roads for two days isn’t cheap and the whole event is just huge. Also how often do you get a chance to qualify for a UCI World Championship? Isn’t that a bit more impressive than riding around your local 10 course, or sprinting for 6th in a 3rd cat race on a nondescript bit of road with no-one watching? Next year’s final takes place in Albi, France. I’ll be aiming for that one, what about you?
If you fancy having a go at a similar event the Marmotte Ecosse is run by the Tour of Cambridgeshire’s organisers, although it isn’t part of the UCI Gran Fondo World Series, it still has the same format; a time trial on the Saturday followed by the Gran Fondo on Sunday, both held on closed roads.
My choice of bike for the day was my own Handsling RR1, a full carbon affair that has seen plenty of action in all kinds of conditions; sportives, road races, club runs and the odd cobbled thrash, it’s never let me down. Like all the best bikes it’s stiff, light and responsive, yet comfortable enough for long days in the saddle. I was using a pair of Sixth Element Cross wheels, which I have had on review for a while now. These deep section beauties are tubeless ready and have taken a huge amount of punishment and are still straight and true, look out for a review soon.
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